POETRY: Sinkhole & The Drowning by Heather Altfeld

POETRY: Sinkhole & The Drowning by Heather Altfeld

Sinkhole
First the man’s aftershave, then his remote control,
the half-finished coffee curdling in the Pyrex mug,
the whole bureau everything was perched on,
with the photograph of the girlfriend he’d missed

for ten years wrapped in tinfoil and stuck with gum
to its underside, and then the hat at the tiptop
of his coatrack, its feather sailing in the air to land
on a bit of tile that would still be left in this world,

the Charmin roll from the bathroom,
bobbling happily into neverness,
the tube socks one at a time
to be joined together in the watery hereafter,

and finally the man himself, charmed for a millisecond
to be chosen like this, then quickened and rigid
with Vesuvian terror, inhaled and deposited
in the terrible quarry beneath us. Let’s face it,

the earth has propped all of us so long, and so miserably,
on her table, teetering under our weight,
the familiar mother, five-thirty on a weeknight,
trapped three carts in on the worst grocery line in America,

her arms finally giving way to spill the crying child
beneath her legs, his rejected hair streaming out
against our shoes while her half gallon of milk
streams down the sticky black runway and they have to call

for an extra checker on five. It can no longer
simply eject us, this bright place, with its limestone
sagging and its shale hungry and our boats so delicious,

it can no longer just strike itself against itself
in the great earthquakes of yesteryear,
laundering our cobbles and our shingles,
rubbling our libraries into one great papery heap,

leaving one small hand visible and reaching from the ruins
to remind us what gravity really looks like;

now she is forced to swallow us whole.
This is how it feels so often to love and be loved
these days; volleying about in the arms of the trying,
flailing and defenseless like impotent squid

who will be sucked forever into the bucket of the heart,
chopped and ringed and peppered with sadness
and flash-fried exactly as we were. Now, we’ll have to strap tanks
to our backs to tunnel and learn this cave beneath us,

the dimensions of her cavities, the precise location
of these new graves. Who knows
what forgotten automat we might find
still spinning in its hollows, its mute sandwiches

blinking at the ugly sturgeons? Who knows what kind of music
we might learn down there, or how we will even know
how to hear it, as it laps its thick green sound against our foggy masks?

• ∞ + ∞ • ‡ • § • ‡ • ∞ + ∞ •

The Drowning

A plump duck dips the mallet of his head
into the ooze of a black swamp.
North the inky geese
ski with forked feet on frozen lakes,
burst beaky holes for the drugged
and sleeping minnows. In the great bowl

of the ocean, fishermen taped
to the hull of their boats by prayer
hoist heavy wet nets back onto the planks.
Laundry spanks the creek rocks
and women sip from cupped hands,
pat bare clavicles with dripping palms.
Cowlicked boys arc their pee upstream,
laughing at the tandem of splashing yellow crescents.
At the holy edge of the river,

the newborn’s body still glazed with heaven is held
high up to the light, leaking the last helium of the stars
as his tiny forehead catches the first pane of sun.
They plink a drop of water between his eyes
where it beads and rolls like god’s marble,
shimmies down his temples like the tears
that will fall on the floating pyre of his withered body

in years to come. Agua fresco, agua frio,
aqua, l’eau, l’eau du vie vive le mayim.
And then two hours after the co-ed girl

tailgated three Blue Ribbons
and a pink winecooler, she stripped
down to her shoestring bikini, plugged her nose,
and cannonballed straight into the chutes
at the south fork of the Yuba
where the drill bit of her body
twirled and bored
and stopped
between two slabs of granite.
Freezing and stuck
beneath the bright current of water,
she began to die. Downstream

we swam and blinked in the belly of water.
They landed two medevac helicopters
twenty feet from us
and began to be the men
who moved the rocks. Boulders

shifting at the speed of boulders shifting,
river cops ordering the audience of bathers
to stay put for safety’s sake. We watched them

watch her feet hardening,
watched them try to lift her cold heart
out from the bruised socket of her body,
watched the stones’ turn
pillow the wet feather of her form
into their hands. Then we became

the first people swimming in the river
where she had died, pooled
in the length of her last breath,
her long hair netted in the same water
where our hair still dripped against our shoulders,

all of our shivers
carried away from us in the hurried tumble,
pressing us back into the dark cygnets of ourselves
as we watched them carry the table of her blue form
back from the bottom of the stars.

~ & ~ ≤ ~ ◊ ~ ≥ ~ & ~

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Heather Altfeld teaches in the English Department and the Honors Program at California State University, Chico. She is a member of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and will be doing her first residency at the Vermont Studio Center this month. Recent and forthcoming publications include poetry in Narrative Magazine, TLR, Cimarron Review, Pleiades, ZYZZYVA, Poetry Northwest, Superstition Review, Miramar Poetry Journal, and others. She has completed her first manuscript of poems and is at work on a second collection as well as a book for children.

“Sinkhole” and “The Drowning” originally appeared in Okey-Panky, a weekly magazine of Electric Literature. Subscribe to Okey-Panky here.

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